At its Sept. 23 meeting, the San Diego City Council will consider the proposed City of Villages strategy as part of the update of the city's General Plan. In short, it seeks to identify areas that could be turned into “villages.” That is, more densely populated neighborhood cores that are located near mass transit and are geared toward a mix of residential and commercial uses and a variety of housing types.
The Sept. 23 public hearing will be held in the Balboa Park Club Ballroom at 5 p.m. There will be many public speakers, and it will last for many hours. You might want to bring a snack and pillow.
What follows are two arguments-one for and one against-regarding the City of Villages concept.
The city of San Diego began an unprecedented collaboration between the public, agencies, organizations and government in 1999. The purpose was to address some of our most pressing issues and ask citizens: What is the best way to enhance quality of life for San Diegans as our city grows? The timing of this dialogue and citizen response could not have come at a more opportune time in our city's history. Why? Our General Plan is outdated and San Diego is growing.
San Diego's regional planning agency, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), projects that about 350,000 more people will call San Diego home by 2020. Up to 60 percent of this increase will likely be our children who decide to stay. Other new residents will come for good jobs, the country's best climate and a remarkable natural environment. How we maintain what makes San Diego special and improve quality of life for future generations involves decisions we must make now.
San Diego traditionally embraced growth by moving outward from the city center and developing raw land. This option worked in the past but now less than 10 percent of the available land remains. We expect roughly 135,000 additional homes will need to be built to meet this need. Where will we build them? How will people move from place to place on our increasingly congested freeways? What kinds of public facilities and infrastructure can people expect in 20 years? We have a lot of challenges ahead-and this is an opportunity to make good choices. The Strategic Framework Element and the City of Villages strategy offer those choices.
If approved by the City Council on Sept. 23, the Strategic Framework Element would provide a needed update to city's General Plan. It would also put into action a comprehensive strategy developed by citizens to meet these challenges, called the City of Villages. Implementing this strategy in a thoughtful manner would help revitalize existing neighborhoods. Villages would be designed to enhance community character and combine housing, jobs, schools, public services and civic uses in communities.
The City of Villages strategy was not developed overnight. A collaborative effort involving government, residents, organizations, businesses and others came together to determine our best options for managing growth while improving quality of life. Partnerships with key agencies such as the county, the Metropolitan Transit Development Board (MTDB) and SANDAG were strengthened in the process.
Citizens came together at more than 200 public meetings and workshops to openly discuss their concerns and identify issues that need to be addressed as we grow. A 40-person Citizen Committee incorporated their feedback into a vision, core values and policy recommendations. This collective effort is the heart of the City of Villages strategy.
San Diegans told us what they value: affordable housing, living wage jobs, having open space and a clean environment, being able to walk more in their communities, having options for getting around the city, keeping our existing single-family housing, maintaining a sense of community identity and enhanced public facilities and services for their communities.
Citizens are committed to preserving single-family neighborhoods and increasing affordability. The City Council recently adopted an inclusionary housing plan as a measure towards providing more housing options to all San Diegans. Creating a variety of housing types within villages would increase housing supply, provide more choices, and improve affordability for families currently earning a living wage. Building villages in areas where a high level of activity already exists would also take pressure off developing our remaining backcountry.
Traffic congestion is an issue that San Diegan's care about. Building villages in areas where transit corridors already exist would improve transit and land use planning. An alternative to using automobiles would be created by locating community services within easy walking distance of each other. The full potential of villages would be further realized with an improved transit system, such as MTDB's proposed Transit First plan. Demonstration projects are currently being planned by MTDB, and these projects could be implemented with future villages. Air quality would improve from decreased auto use, increased walking and more citizens using transit.
Good jobs are important for San Diego to maintain a healthy and diverse economy. Villages would combine employment and housing uses together in support of this goal. Having a sound plan to finance the estimated $2.5 billion shortfall in public facilities, including libraries, parks and recreation facilities will be a challenge. This shortfall exists now-whether future villages are built or not-and does need to be addressed.
A number of alternative funding sources to upgrade such facilities have been identified in an independent facilities financing study. Cooperative efforts among communities, agencies, public and private organizations, schools, employers, the business and financial community, local transit authorities, developers and the city are vital. Such partnerships would help ensure villages are built in areas where existing facilities and infrastructure can be upgraded in a cost-effective way. An ongoing dialogue between citizens and elected officials needs to continue as we decide how to achieve this.
Some communities already like the concept of a village to help revitalize their neighborhoods. Others may not feel this strategy is right for them, or they may choose to see how a village works in another community before they decide. In each case a process to amend and update community plans would take place first to assess if a village would help meet individual community needs and goals.
I encourage citizens to get involved by attending the Sept. 23 hearing.
The next step would be a process to select and build three pilot village demonstration projects. Each pilot would be a working example of how the City of Villages strategy can be realized throughout San Diego. Pilot villages would allow the opportunity to build public/private partnerships and continue to build trust in the strategy as communities could then actually see the potential benefits of a village.
We can improve the quality of life for all San Diegans by working together to make our goals a reality.
Village: a settlement, larger than a hamlet and smaller than a town Pillage: to plunder ruthlessly.
Powerful development industry forces are trying to turn the city of San Diego into Los Angeles! It's being done under the guise of a general plan update called the City of Villages.
The public is being told this is “smart growth” and will help reduce traffic. However, the Environmental Impact Report prepared by city planners states the opposite. The plan calls for 17,000-37,000 new condos and apartments, densely built to 110 units per acre. These would result in 180,000 to 240,000 added daily auto trips, which is roughly the present traffic load on I-8. Even if the region was able to fund and build a massive new public transportation system, the so-called Transit First project, and even after counting walking as a trip, more than 90 percent of trips would still be by auto in 2020.
If this isn't bad enough, air pollution would increase by 14 to 29 tons a day! Garbage weighing 20,000 to 44,000 tons per year would be added by the City of Villages, and we don't know where we would put it.
An unspecified number of people would be involuntarily relocated by this “innovative redevelopment”-with taxpayers picking up the costs. The upzoning would make developers rich while adding to the urban miseries of city residents. In 30 years of living in San Diego, I've never seen a more obvious example of “they get the gold, we get the shaft.” Since one of Mayor Murphy's top 10 goals is reducing traffic, and he has pledged to oppose floodplain development, I don't see how he can support the plan. Some 12,000 more homes are planned for Mission Valley alone-most of them in the floodplain area!
No other city in the county is proposing such density increases. Imperial Beach, Coronado, National City, Del Mar, Santee, La Mesa and Lemon Grove have had nearly stable populations over the past decade. One way they have accomplished this is by not allowing density increases like those proposed in the City of Villages plan. It may be reasonable to build new development with mixed-use homes and businesses-and to locate this close to mass transit. But this cannot be used as an excuse to carry out this City of Village Sardines Plan. San Diego's air pollution already exceeds Clean Air Act standards. That and our overburdened roads should be clear signals to decision makers that the City of Villages plan is highly irresponsible.
Yet the traffic story gets worse. What kind of planners would count traffic from residential units but not stores and offices? Our city planners! The traffic models were fed figures on the extra homes but not the businesses needed to serve them. So we don't even know the total impacts on traffic.
The City of Villages is hardly compact growth. The 17,000 to 37,000 densely built condos and apartments would stretch from San Ysidro to Rancho Bernardo. This would foster sprawl rather than prevent it.
The city brags about the citizen input received. One citizen on the advisory committee represents an architectural firm that worked on the Chevron-Levi-Cushman Plan to subdivide the golf course in Mission Valley-before the plan was stopped in 1993. These firms no doubt see big money if the City of Villages plan is adopted. A conflict of interest?
The potential for windfall profits is obvious, since commercial landowners would benefit from huge increases in property values as densities are increased up to 110 units per acre. Yet taxpayers would be expected to pay for the transit part of the plan through extension of the TransNet sales tax, along with many new taxes. Taxpayers would reap the “benefits” of increased traffic and pollution. This is like a smoker blowing smoke into a closed room full of people and presenting a bill for the cigarettes to the second-hand smokers.
The transit improvements proposed would be a small band-aid on the cancer of traffic and air pollution. And a minor detail: the new transportation system is not funded. Unless two-thirds of voters reauthorize the TransNet tax and approve other taxes being proposed, even this little band-aid will not be applied.
The momentum is strong because the people promoting City of Villages have a vested interest in it: bankers, developers, landowners and the transit authority, which hopes to gain taxpayer funding of their plan.
The hype of City of Villages states that it is “anti-sprawl.” However, the draft environmental impact report states “for all trips, the transit use and walking was estimated to comprise 6 percent citywide. It appears that traffic model results show that the use of personal vehicles, although with increased occupancy, still remain the predominate preferred mode of transportation for any scenario in the year 2020.” It is therefore not surprising that the EIR shows every freeway would have more daily traffic as a result of City of Villages-contrary to the misleading statements about traffic relief being made by city staff.
Growth-causing circular logic has a prominent role in the City of Villages. The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) allocates growth to the region's cities based on vacant land and zoning policies. So when the city of San Diego affirmed that more density was planned with the Villages strategy, SANDAG allocated more growth to the city! In contrast, cities that said they were built-out received little or no allocation of growth. We could follow the lead of our neighboring “no growth” cities and declare ourselves “built out.” We would all breathe easier and spend less time in traffic as a result.
Why would the City leaders even consider a plan that would add to current burdens of traffic, smog, taxes, park and school crowding? They appear to be following the lure of “smart growth” in hopes that building more homes in the city will lead to fewer homes in rural areas. Yet with no mechanism to link the two, the likely scenario is more development nearby with continued growth afar.
They also tout the promise of affordable housing. Yet increased density does not automatically lower the cost of buying or renting a home. Just look at New York, LA and San Francisco with their ultra-high densities and ultra-high costs.